Monday 18 April 2011

The Four and Twenty Letters

In Sir Francis Bacon's essay Of Friendship, I came across this:

As for business, a man may think, if he will, that two eyes see no more than one; or that a gamester seeth always more than a looker-on; or that a man in anger is as wise as he that hath said over the four and twenty letters; or that a musket may be shot off as well upon the arm as upon a rest; and such other fond and high imaginations, to think himself all in all.

The reason it is four and twenty lessons is that, in the orthographically straitened times in which Bacon lived, there were only twenty-four letters in the alphabet. They managed this because u and v were considered the same letter, as were i and j. That's why in those renaissance paintings of the crucifixion the letters INRI are written on the cross. INRI stands for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, or Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews. We would therefore write JNRJ, but that's because we have more letters than we know what to do with.

What really strikes me about Bacon's allusion is that reciting the twenty four letters was the standard method of calming down. Where we would say "Take a deep breath and count to ten", they would take a deep breath and recite the entire alphabet, which must, I suppose, be 140% more effective, assuming emotions to run on linear mathematics. This means that renaissance England must have been a much calmer place than modern and furious Britain.

Mind you, a few pages away there's a lovely comment that: is the nature of extreme self-lovers, as they will set an house on fire, and it were but to roast their eggs.

Which seems a pretty damned furious method of cookery. I confess, though, that what I really love about that last quotation is that it is, technically, Bacon on eggs.

Breakfast is on its way

1 comment:

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